The U.S. needs to deliver “straight talk” to the Syrian leadership on stabilizing Iraq and cutting links to Hezbollah in Lebanon, President Barack Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Damascus said today.
“Bad news just doesn’t flow upwards over there,” Robert Ford, a career diplomat, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing as he explained why the U.S. wants to send an ambassador for the first time in five years.
Ford said Syria should shut down remaining foreign fighter networks feeding militants into Iraq and realize that Iraq has a sustainable, constitutional government that won’t be overthrown. Ford is currently deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and has served in Bahrain, Egypt and Algeria.
If confirmed as ambassador, Ford said he would tell Syria it must cooperate with international nuclear inspectors and that U.S. sanctions won’t be dropped unless Syria stops supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and arming it with rockets and other weapons used against Israel.
Israeli warplanes bombed a suspected nuclear reactor development site in Syria in 2007. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in February that Syria won’t allow inspectors to re-visit places where undeclared, manmade uranium particles were matched to the bombed Dair Alzour site.
The U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador in Syria since 2005, when it withdrew an envoy after the car-bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. An initial United Nations investigation into Hariri’s killing implicated Syrian officials, allegations denied by the government in Damascus.
“If we are to succeed in stabilizing the region, we must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah share Syria’s long-term strategic interest in a comprehensive Middle East peace,” Ford said. “Indeed, we must see whether the Syrians are truly interested in negotiating that peace agreement with Israel.”
Syria and Israel held talks two years ago under Turkish mediation that explored possible peace terms. The U.S. Middle East envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, met Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus in January as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to pursue a comprehensive regional peace accord.
Ford promised to “reach out beyond government circles” to spread the U.S. message and engage younger Syrians.
“Its youth bubble — 80 percent of Syrians are under the age of 30 — faces rising unemployment even as they enjoy easy access to satellite television and the Internet,” Ford said. “Many of them hope that Syria will become a fuller part of the Mediterranean and broader international community.”
Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, said he was confident that the panel could advance Ford’s nomination quickly for consideration by the full Senate. BW